Let Puerto Ricans vote

(03/09/98, Copyright 1998)


House’s bill to clarify the commonwealth’s status is hardly a model for clarity Puerto Rico didn’t ask to be a U.S. possession. It was ceded to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War.

Today, the era of U.S. colonialism officially is over. Unofficially, that wasn’t easily discernible to those who tuned in to C-SPAN’s live coverage of the House’s debate last week on the Caribbean island’s status. As a condition for allowing a plebiscite , some lawmakers tried to demand that English be adopted as Puerto Rico’s official language. Fortunately, less imperial voices prevailed. The House attached an amendment to its status bill that requires Puerto Rico to promote the teaching of English, rather than its imposition.

The contentious 12-hour debate was significant. It marked the first time that Congress has approved a measure to clarify the status of the commonwealth. The House approval was by a floss-thin margin, 209-208. It was indicative of the deep emotional taproot that the status question unearths. Both in the United States and in Puerto Rico. If the Senate passes its version of a status bill, Puerto Rico then would be required to hold an election. The options are: independence, statehood, or continued commonwealth status. Realistically, the issue is between continued commonwealth status or statehood. In the last status vote three years ago, commonwealth edged statehood 48.6 to 46.3. Independence eked out only 4.4 percent.

Critics say the House bill unfairly nudges the ballot in favor of statehood. That’s valid criticism. The bill’s language says that statehood would guaranteed U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans, implying that a vote for commonwealth status would jeopardize the islander’s current status as citizens.

In fact, this was the conundrum that fueled the unrelenting intensity of the debate. It divided Puerto Rican lawmakers as well as the conservative House Republicans. Admittedly, the House’s bill limped off the floor. It’s redemptive feature is that it puts the issue where it belongs - squarely in the hands of the residents of Puerto Rico.

Instead of ducking the issue entirely as it seems wont to do, the Senate should accept the challenge of producing a measure unfettered by jingoistic language mandates and veiled threats against citizenship. Puerto Ricans deserve a chance to vote on a clean bill - one not laden with the imprimatur of paternalism. They need the chance to make a clear choice about their future.

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